States buy hotels to provide short- and long-term housing for wildfire survivors


The climate crisis is already worsen the housing crisis. Last year, wildfires burned and damaged approximately 17,700 structures in the United States. It was one of the most destructive seasons on record, and frightening, part of an upward trend. Forest fires are already contribute to the housing shortage in California and Oregon. Texas, Washington and Colorado also have lost a significant number of buildings in the fire in recent years. Over the past decade, natural disasters caused by climate change have caused internal displacement around the world and forced 20 million people from their homes each year, by the UN.

That’s why some wildfire prone areas are reworking pandemic emergency housing initiatives to shelter residents affected by extreme weather conditions. Oregon and California are renting and buying hotels to house residents who have lost their homes to a wildfire, as well as homeless people living in fire-prone areas. They are also converting some of the units into affordable transitional and permanent housing, depending on the needs of the community.

“With just one investment, you can add emergency shelter and also tackle the root cause of the long-term lack of affordable housing,” says Megan Loeb, program manager at the Oregon Community Foundation. The foundation oversees Turnkey project, which was launched in October 2020 to convert hotels into different types of accommodation. She adds that hotels and motels can almost immediately house people – plus they are more welcoming to families and LGBTQ people, and safer during a pandemic, than collective housing.

Like pandemic initiatives have demonstrated, hotels and motels are much easier to adapt than, say, office buildings, and modernization is a faster and cheaper solution than building from scratch. In addition, the reassignment of existing structures such as hotels is more ecological. Even people living in settlements who are reluctant to go to shelters tend to be more open to staying in hotels, advocates say. Many hotel owners are open to selling, given how COVID-19 has decimated the tourism industry, and owners are generally well reimbursed, according to Bloomberg.

The California Home Project Key spear last June with $ 846 million in state and federal emergency funds to buy hotels and establish permanent housing for homeless people. In six months, it created 6,029 new permanent housing units. On July 12, Governor Gavin Newsom expanded the program with $ 12 billion over two years to create another 42,000 units – the largest such investment in state history.

Seeing California’s success, Oregon launched a Turnkey project Following the Labor Day 2020 fires, the the state’s most destructive fire on record. In one weekend, 4,500 homes were lost, many at affordable prices. The devastation of the wildfires and the ongoing pandemic meant the shelters were full and equally dangerous. The state was already considering a program like Turnkey, and the fire created a new emergency. As part of a larger forest fire relief program, Oregon allocated $ 65 million for non-profit partners to purchase and renovate 18-20 hotels, with the goal of accommodating 1,000 people for up to one year, providing tailored support services and channeling them to other accommodations permanent. Of that, $ 30 million went to the six rural counties hardest hit by the fires, and the remaining $ 35 million went to statewide shelters for anyone who is homeless.

“The Turnkey Project really represents the state’s largest investment in direct services to the homeless,” says Representative Pam Marsh (D-Ashland), a key Turnkey Champion whose district has been hard hit by fires. “I think it can be a game-changer because we are able to give communities real assets that will be centers of activity for homeless services. Once you have a foothold, more is possible.

In its first phase, Turnkey added nearly 900 beds across 19 properties in 13 counties in less than eight months – an increase of approximately 20% in the supply of year-round emergency accommodation beds in Oregon. Program partners are gradually adapting hotel units to affordable housing on an ongoing basis, adding amenities such as kitchenettes to bring them up to standard, according to Loeb. End of April 2021, Oregon passed a bill which facilitates the ability to convert hotels into refuge and accommodation. In June 2021, Oregon approved another $ 9.7 million for Turnkey to fully fund approved projects and create 132 additional emergency housing units.

“[Project Turnkey] meets about a tenth of the needs in Oregon. It’s a very important piece of the puzzle, but it’s only one piece, ”says Gina Nikkel, executive director of the Association of Oregon Counties, which has been involved with the Turnkey project since its inception. She says many turnkey clients have experienced trauma and stresses the importance of wrap-around services in helping the project succeed. “People displaced by COVID may need food, those affected by forest fires may need services to help them rebuild their homes or find permanent affordable housing, and those with mental health or addiction also need specialized help. “

Temporarily housing people in hotels is not a new idea, but the practice accelerated during the pandemic as cities rented hotels to shelter the homeless and give hotels a boost. Converting them to permanent shelters is newer, but King County near Seattle – where the coronavirus has started to spread in the United States – is one that is making a big investment. The county led a successful experiences of hotels to house which it is reworking to tackle chronic homelessness, with $ 350 million to buy and convert hotels into long-term housing. It just bought its fourth hotel.

Adding to the urgency of the moment, the moratorium on CDC evictions is set to expire in late July. Housing advocates have been sound the alarm a possible wave of evictions, and Black and Latinx tenants and small landlords will probably be the hardest hit. Forest fires and other natural disasters tend to impact marginalized communities the most – including people of color, people on low incomes and people with disabilities – who tend to be more exposed to dangerous conditions and have fewer resources to turn to afterwards. Essentially, extreme weather conditions increase existing housing shortages and inequalities, a Center for American Progress (CAP) 2019 study shows.

It’s important to consider affordable housing and climate change together, according to Guillermo Ortiz, a former CAP housing and climate researcher who worked on the report. After a natural disaster, typically “this accommodation is not replaced on a case-by-case basis. Often the little affordable housing you have is destroyed by these extreme weather events. “

“Political issues are discussed in silos, but the problem with climate change is that it affects everything,” Ortiz says. “When we think of climate resiliency plans, housing absolutely has to be part of the discussion. “

Santa Barbara, California is trying to do just that. He recently approved a pilot initiative to rent a hotel and provide full services to homeless residents living in “fire-prone settlements” for 120 days. In May, the city experienced a series of 18 small fires in densely vegetated homeless settlements. In the middle of it was Loma’s fire, which was allegedly triggered intentionally by someone using methamphetamine. He forced the evacuation of a neighborhood, ultimately consuming nine acres and trigger panic among residents that a similar fire under different conditions could burn the city down.

“The Loma fire has really given the impetus to make things happen now,” said Jeff Shaffer, a housing advocate in Santa Barbara with SB Alliance for Community Transformation who is involved in the project. He says two weeks later, the county has already housed 39 people at the Rose Garden Inn and put them on the path to permanent housing – and there have been no complaints from neighbors. He attributes this to establishing many relationships.

“You have to get the community to support him so that they don’t oppose it, and you have to get people on the streets to support him. Those are the two key elements, ”Shaffer said. He says it’s important to ask homeless people what they want and to make sure business owners and other community members feel heard and understand the program. According to his audience, he emphasizes the economic benefit of homeless housing, or the ethical mandate to do so. “This balance ultimately helps us move our solutions forward when we need them. “

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